The rapid spread of online universities has provided an education invitation for thousands
of Americans who never thought they would have the time and money to earn a degree. From single parents to armed service veterans, the profile of these new students is significantly different from the stereotype of 17-year-olds who are fresh out of high school. Instead, many of the new freshmen are seasoned professionals who have years of experience in the workplace. Pushed by the economic recession or by ambition for a career change, they join the class with a strong motivation for their studies. Despite that academic leadership, they often face a challenge in fitting in to social groups with their younger classmates. Here are some real-world tricks for pulling the two groups together.
- Pick the right plan. Working professionals who return to school for a degree at Keene State College in Keene, New Hampshire often join the campus’ Adult Learner Entrance Assistance Program (ALEAP). Realizing that adult students’ goals and needs are different from teenagers’, the school has dedicated special resources to the challenge, says associate director of admissions Bert Poirier. To help its adult students understand the objectives and requirements of earning a liberal arts or professional degree, the college counsels them to clarify career goals, develop an education plan, interpret academic requirements and evaluate previously earned credits.
- Lead by example. Many professors see their adult students as classroom leaders who can enrich academic discussions by contributing their hard-earned knowledge of the working world. At the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan in Wisconsin, instructors appreciate adult students’ willingness to participate in classroom discussion and share insights gained from real-life experiences, says Pam Fitzer, the school’s coordinator of services for adult students. That experience can be an edge that may help these individuals win many of the academic honors and scholarships on campus.
- Find safety in numbers. The trend toward older student enrollment means that nontraditional students comprise a significant portion of many campus populations. Adults aged 22 and over make up 35 percent of all students at the University of Wisconsin-Sheboygan. Many of those returning students are employed full-time, and bond as they schedule classwork around extracurricular obligations like jobs and family. The figures are even higher at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where the average college student is 27 years old. In 2005, a total of 37 percent of students at the school were 25 or older. It’s hard to feel lonely when you’re surrounded by your peers.
- Look beyond the course titles. Adult students who return to school need more than the right course – they need it in the right time and place. To balance their academic schedules with work and family demands, returning students should be sure to ask about night, weekend and online courses, according to a list of Back-to-school Tips for Adult Students offered by Ohio State. For those classes that demand attendance, some schools even have satellite locations for commuter students.
- Update your skills. College has come a long way since the days of spiral notebooks and loose-leaf binders. Most professors now incorporate computers into their teaching, whether they are simply posting assignments and grades or hosting online exams. Returning students at Ohio State can get up to speed on new technology by taking a one-day campus computer course. The topics range from a simple Microsoft Windows refresher called “Computers for the Clueless” to lessons on Excel spreadsheets, Access databases, Photoshop graphics, Powerpoint presentations and Dreamweaver website design.
Regardless of the college they pick or the state they go to school in – Wyoming, Vermont, Tennessee, South Dakota – returning adult students can succeed on campus if they set their goals, build a realistic schedule, establish family support groups and share their unique gifts with other students.